A Cartoonish Thriller

Author: Adam Sikes

Professor William Dresden has never fit in, not with his family, and not with the academic world, which has just terminated his promising career over his recent research publication. He thinks he has nothing left to lose when he agrees to meet with a mysterious stranger at a Parisian café to talk about his failed studies. Instead, he discovers that his research has led MI6 to some critical findings about an international neo-fascist organization (the Strasbourg Executive). The complication? MI6 is compromised, the Executive has already deployed several assassins, and Professor Dresden’s family are deeply involved in bringing about the new world order. Should Dresden choose family or morality? What can he, one hermit-ish professor, do to stop an organization with so much power, history, and technology anyway?

The Underhanded has a strong premise, making The Executive’s manipulation of media, “fake news,” and social sites the catalyst for a growing anti-immigration movement across Europe and the United States. We see references to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and learn more deeply how unsubstantiated opinions and news can be used to galvanize the fear and prejudices of millions. Yet, premise alone is not enough to sustain a plot, even when you have assassins, spies, and fights. You need a sense of realism, a believable villainy, chilling for its thoughtfulness and precise evil. Instead, The Underhanded is more summary and stereotype than an intriguing, international doomsday experience. It’s cartoonish.

It starts with Dresden going from down-and-out professor to international badass within the space of a day. Despite words to the contrary, he instantly accepts the rouge MI6 agent’s revelations as fact, banding with her to fight the Executive and discover more about his estranged family’s involvement. The transition and acceptance are too fast, the zero-to-hero paradigm drastically overplayed.

Also . . . how does a professor have such amazing, kung fu like fighting movements, a surprise that even Dresden remarks as unbelievable? The antagonists are, after all, trained bad guys, but apparently, they went to the Dr. Evil school of villainy, because catching one professor who keeps doing all the wrong things (calling and visiting people he knows are compromised, forgetting that his phone can easily be used as a tracking device, etc.) is beyond impossible. The last-minute saves, of course, are meant to up the adrenaline in the book. Again, back to the good premise, but bad execution. Perhaps if this had been on the big screen, it would have felt more believable, or at least encouraged us to throw aside our doubt to enjoy some cinematic confrontations. As it was, it’s not working.

Image by Sammy-Sander from Pixabay

As the story continues to unfold, Dresden learns about his erstwhile father, and some other bloodthirsty family members he never knew about. This leads him to one man who, despite being deeply committed to racism, genocide, and just random murder, makes a 180 degree turn and ends up on the good guy’s side, conveniently giving Dresden and Adeline the next piece in the puzzle. Everyone, of course, accepts this in the space of one abbreviated conversation, and the complicated story just flows on. Just, what? It could, of course, work, but at this warp speed, with characters summarizing their own life-altering experiences, telling rather than letting us see, everything becomes dull, one-dimensional, unbelievable. And if our heroes are so smart, why do they trust everyone!?

The tell, don’t show motif continues with The Executive’s new leader, a woman who likes murder more than power, seemingly. Her bad decisions and hostile takeover are the catalyst for Dresden’s involvement and the progenitor of the ultimate *cue evil laughter* scheme of mayhem and violence. It involves terrorist cells, timed acts of violence across the globe, social media, and two hackers who can basically do anything at any time. Again, the idea had merit, but it played out too quickly and the logic and careful thought and planning to implement such a scheme was neither explained nor earned. Things are just happening, rapid-fire, and nobody but Dresden and Adeline could ever possibly believe them.

In the end, the good guys win (of course) with a daring plan based on zero experience and foreknowledge. Dresden’s family tie-in does not really work, even though it’s meant to be the complicating moral factor. It honestly doesn’t matter to him or The Executive really, it’s just one more thing to track that never lives up to the expectation. Also, why the bad guys fall for the super-obvious overly simply get the cops-in-to-catch-them-in-public scenario? I’ll never understand.

The idea and characters were there, but The Underhanded need to slow down, to make the people, good and bad, believable, instead of giving into the action cartoon stereotypes. We needed more time to see the vile schemes crafted and executed, and we needed the villains smarter and the heroes more human (sans the ability to suddenly kick ass with zero training.) The idea was there, the execution was not. I feel like this would have been better on the big screen, like it almost wanted to be a screenplay instead of a novel.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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